Monday, 29 December 2008

The mystery worshipper is desperately needed - in Berlin

I was so looking forward to Christmas in Germany - the beautiful music, going to church, seeing friends, Christmas markets, being in the city of my dreams ... and it was wonderful, all of it.
Though I didn't expect to hear bad sermons - the first so joyless that it drove us to go to church again at midnight on Christmas Eve, where the sermon was better and involved the organ playing the heartbeat of God at the beginning and end very effectively. Then on Christmas morning we tried again - oh dear, more lengthy pseudo-intellectual joylessness - thankfully punctuated by perfect and glorious organ playing, but hey in the end I'm here for the word ...
Both Dr B and I had some theological issues with one aspect of the good midnight sermon but it was at least "preached" and gave food for thought about faith, life, God and values.
In the end a slip in theology but preached as if you want to communicate something you believe is worth sharing, wins hands down over the "I will show you how much I know in a disdainful voice for 25 minutes" approach. The services were perfectly executed but became in the end a triumph of form over content, quite a tragedy as most of the people there will have been in church for their annual Christmas fix.
Now I must do some research to see if something like Ship of Fools exists in Germany, one or two of the churches could really do with some systematic visiting by the mystery worshipper. Narrenschiff anyone?
Perhaps I should add that my own preaching is not always brilliant so I tend to be a fairly tolerant listener to sermons by others - I know how much work it is to prepare and preach them. I miss the discipline of the weekly sermon grind and I have sometimes had to get up very early on Christmas morning to write another sermon - having preached two a day for the previous week or so, I'm sure not all of them were great, but I hope they communicated some passion for the Good News.
I came away from our rather sobering German Christmas experience thinking about how possibly the insitence on getting the liturgy to perfectly dovetail means that everything is rather too orderly and perfect. Fortunately I have also heard some brilliant and simply good sermons in Germany in the past, and I am sure that many were also preached this Christmas.
However, if you like me had a bad sermon experience at Christmas then I really recommend Kim Fabricius' Christmas offering posted on Faith and Theology, you can read it here and here's the penultimate paragraph:
As for me, today I bring you good news about the God disclosed in this child, who happens to be the Word made flesh, the “little Word,” as St. Bernard called him. He has no time for religious fuss, he gives no points for moral rectitude, he is oblivious to all our other divisive cultural constructions, and he would not know theological correctness if it pulled down his nappy and smacked him on the bum. All – all – are welcome at the manger. He simply wants you to come as you are and to be there with him. All very natural, because although there is another world, you will find it nowhere else but hidden in this one.

I also highly recommend his Propositions on Christian Theology - a Pilgrim Walks the Plank, which was my Christmas gift. Preaching is about walking the plank and daring to communicate. In his 9.5 propositions on preaching Kim does say that lousy preaching is "alas, not a status confessionis" - ah well that's me put in my place - the bit about the sermon I am listening to "being my own obituary" also brought me up short. Perhaps my jottings on joyless sermons only say something about me and not about the preaching I listened to ...